“Babylon” brings us back to old Hollywood
Babylon is a bodacious, outrageous, epic romp of a film. Directed by La La Land’s Damien Chazelle, the film depicts the glitz, glamour and hedonistic excess of late 1920s era Hollywood as the industry makes the revolutionary transition from silent to sound movies.
The movie stars Margot Robbie as the rags-to-riches turned “It Girl” Nellie LaRoy; Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad, an alcoholic, oft-divorced, washed up movie star who struggles to keep his relevance as the sound era becomes the mainstream. Budding star Diego Calva is Manuel Torres, the wide-eyed, Mexican immigrant that started as an errand boy but, through grit and good fortune, ends up as a Hollywood executive. And though Pitt and Robbie carry formidable star power, this is really Manuel’s story, the underdog you end up rooting for, his journey overlapping with both Pitt and Robbie’s arches.
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The film starts with a bang, literally—an elephant defecates on Manuel as he struggles to transport it to a cast party. This is no regular evening soiree. The debaucherous affair is a chaotic, lawless event with plenty of drugs, exhibitionist sex, gambling and, eventually, a live elephant. We won’t lie, it looks pretty fun. Visually it is quite a sight: the topless ladies dancing, the all-black band playing some aggressive swing jazz, people doing ether and mountains of cocaine. The morning after the sordid affair, the hungover stars make their way to set, medieval and “wild west” productions being shot simultaneously. The sleep deprived Nellie, still a struggling drifter, wows the director in her job as stand-in, upstaging the star. Jack, still drunk, dazzles as a knight in shining armor.
The first two scenes of Babylon really set the tone. In the rest of the three hour plus runtime, the story outlines numerous character arcs, with many of them echoing common stereotypes in late 1920s Hollywood: Jack’s fall from grace, from movie star to laughingstock, witnessing audiences riotously mock his performance, gradually coming to the bleak realization that he hasn’t made the cut to sound movies; Nellie’s humble beginnings as a blue-collar Jersey girl to becoming a bona fide star before throwing it all away due to her gambling (and cocaine) problem and declining mental health; Manuel’s journey as an immigrant to Hollywood bigwig, all the while being in love with Nellie; even the trumpeter Sidney Palmer has an intriguing tale going from a working “Negro” musician to making it in Hollywood and eventually being faced with the moral dilemma of whether to wear blackface and appease studio overlords.
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That may sound like a lot to pack in one movie but Chazelle effectively gets the job done. Babylon is three hours and nine minutes long and at times feels much longer (though longer in a good way). By the ending, we have truly immersed ourselves in the respective journeys of these characters, particularly Calva’s Manuel, and we are keenly invested in the outcomes. The film has shades of Chazelle’s earlier work, La La Land and Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (coincidentally also starring Pitt and Robbie), both also meta-tributes to vintage Hollywood and bygone eras. At times, it is also reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby for its ambitiousness and over-the-top visual splendor. Overall, Babylon makes for a manic and gratifying watch, at times both funny and tragic, visually striking and well-crafted.
Words Art Vandelay
Art Alexandra Lara